Crossing Borders

Changing German Identity Revealed at World Cup

July 10, 2006

If soccer transcends mere sport and the World Cup is more than just a month-long festival of matches and merriment, Germany may have undergone a transformation by hosting the 2006 competition — it not only found diversion in the world's soccer tournament, but diversity as well.

The methods of German national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who resides in California, has changed the attitudes of many players, fans and journalists. His is a message of inspiration, not intimidation. An outstanding striker in his playing days who helped Germany win the 1990 World Cup, Klinsmann has uprooted the sport in his native country with his free thinking, which was borne of observations from his time in the United States.

He was hired to coach the national team two years ago and quickly angered officials of the German football federation (DFB) by commuting to and from America to coach his players, and introducing training methods — some of which he first encountered in the USA — that were perceived as radical by the Federation's traditionalists.

But as Germany rolled through the World Cup tournament, criticism subsided. The man dubbed "Grinsi-Klinsi", not flatteringly, for his incessant enthusiasm, had already won over his players; the public and press soon joined in. A heartbreaking 2-0 overtime loss to Italy in the semifinals, which would normally be considered a failure in a country obsessed with soccer supremacy, was instead heralded as a triumph, partially because the team played with a zeal and confidence seldom before seen.

After winning the 1990 tournament, the Germans failed to get to the semifinals in 1994 and 1998. Four years ago, they reached the final and lost to Brazil, yet so appalling was the quality of their play that the DFB launched an extensive analysis of its player development programs.

In approaching this year's tournament, Coach Klinsmann set out to re-think as well as re-tool. He is more American than many people born in the United States. During his playing days, he would always vacation in the U.S. He married a woman from Northern California and upon retirement as a player built a beautiful home in Southern California to indulge his fondness for the beach, warm weather, and a relaxed lifestyle drastically different than the intense pressure of European soccer. Klinsmann still lives in Southern California with his wife and two children. Incidentally, his home is not far from the training headquarters of the U.S. Soccer Federation.

The German Federation is being pressured to re-hire Klinsmann, whose contract runs until the World Cup final Sunday (July 9) in Berlin. Also under pressure are officials at U.S. Soccer, pondering whether to re-hire Bruce Arena, who has coached the U.S. team since 1998, or alter direction. Might they want to look in Klinsmann's direction?

Through the accomplishments of his team, Klinsmann radically altered the identity of German soccer, and in some ways that of the nation. The team has broadened a nation's vision of itself. Two of its players are black, two more were born in Poland, and another is of Swiss descent. Its captain, Michael Ballack, is a native of East Germany who has found prosperity in the West. Jurgen Klopp, a popular TV commentator and the coach of Bundesliga club FSV Mainz, noted that: "This team has given us the opportunity to rediscover ourselves and our country."

If hired by U.S. Soccer, Klinsmann would no doubt re-define the sport in America, where a small outpost that embraces the world's game lives on the frontier of widespread ignorance and disdain.

Older: Different Worlds Cross Paths at the World Cup Newer: World Cup Conclusions

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